Bullitt (1968)

D: Peter Yates
S: Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughan, Jacqueline Bisset

Lt. Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a San Francisco cop whose response to a world filled with death and deception is an invariable, ice-cold, quick-witted and unflagging devotion to duty. Because of this he has shut himself off from other human beings, including his beautiful girlfriend Jacqueline Bisset. He expresses himself first through action, then with a minimum of tersely spoken dialogue. But when the supposedly routine witness protection case to which he has been assigned begins to cause a serious body count, he begins to wonder just whom it is he is supposed to be protecting.

This slick, well directed thriller proves a perfect vehicle for the screen persona of its star, whose definitive coolness is here matched with sharp, sparse dialogue, supremely visual direction, a wonderful jazzy score from Lalo Schifrin and a ten minute car chase around the streets of San Franciso which has become movie folklore. It is a clear forerunner of Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, and probably the great grandaddy of all modern cop thrillers (and bears strong resemblances, believe it or not, to Blade Runner, right down to Harrison Ford's physical appearance in the latter), yet consciously imitates the structure and character of its generic forerunners from the thirties and forties. It's cops and robbers here, with good guys and bad guys pretty clearly marked out from one another despite the shifting currents of the plot. The only ambiguous character is Robert Vaughan's slimy public prosecutor, whose motivations are unclear and whose implication in a potential conspiracy serves as a useful red herring for most of the running time.

Like the cops who preceded him, Bullitt is devoted to the law, and does what he thinks is right in the service of the public trust. But like the cops who followed him, he is a modern loner, adrift in a sea of borderline interpersonal dysfunction. Yet unlike the later antiheroes of Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon, Bullitt is not cynical. He is simply closed off, and is forcibly confronted with the question of his empathic disavowal by Bisset in the course of the movie. At the end, his soul is not lost (as Harry Callahan's was at the end of Dirty Harry). Instead, the act of violence he commits, contrary to the demands of the system, reaffirms his awareness of the necessity of justice in the service of the people. He does not become a dehumanised right-wing executioner, but a man capable of feeling emotion and acting on his moral impulses.

McQueen is smooth and naturalistic in the central role, and British director Peter Yates matches this throughout with a convincingly realistic tone. It is a film composed of little details and quiet realisations, and though the plot is fairly simple in retrospect (from the novel Mute Witness by Robert L. Pike), it is exposed with more concern for the logistics of the situation than the pleasure of the audience. Surprisingly, this is not alienating. Rather, McQueen's magnetic personality draws you along until you begin to realise you're caught up in a murder mystery that has less to do with whodunit than why. The whys themselves then are revealed not for the oohs and aahs of a ghoulish spectacle, but to pose questions about the motivations and operations of the system in an age when that system was receiving a serious going over for the first time.

Its real appeal for film buffs is the fantastic direction by Yates and the Oscar winning editing by Frank Keller. Even in the non-action sequences, the film has a distinctive concern with the movement of the human body within the frame and the structure of a system of meaningful gestures and expressions in a non-verbal conversation between beings. It is carefully made and wonderfully cinematic, even though the main attractions of the film for casual audiences are McQueen himself and the scenes of violence and suspense in which he is involved. It is something of a time capsule film, and its penchant for long stretches without dialogue and a lack of repeated explanation of the plot may not endear it to the postmodern generation. But with a strong retro-vogue for Steve McQueen (down to the use of some of the car chase footage from this film in a recent car commercial), it may hold certain other charms for the unattuned. But for those with a predisposition to classic movies, it is a must see.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.